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Is There Built-in, Societal Prejudice Toward Bereaved People?

Yes, It’s Called “Institutionalized Griefism”

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Highline College

Since the death of your loved one, have you ever experienced some form of discrimination? The death of someone you love is bad enough. Being treated differently just adds to your grief.

In the Psychology of Human Relations college course I teach, we spend three days looking at how prejudice (racism, sexism, ageism) is built into our society. It is called Institutionalized Prejudice. In writing this article I created a term: Institutionalized Griefism. In order to explain it, bear with me as I discuss a little Sociology.

Sociologists tell us that there are five basic institutions or components of every society: Government, Religion, Economy, Education, and Family. If we look closely, we can see how each of these institutions has prejudice built into it. Grief is no different. Let’s look.

How is prejudice toward bereaved people built into our Government? You’ve heard of bereavement leave—time off given to an employee whose loved one has died. Did you know that there is no federal law requiring such leave? The good news is that, the majority of businesses do provide bereavement leave; however, 1 of 8 businesses do not. The other bad news is that the businesses who do provide leave will give you a maximum of—drum roll, please—three days! Your loved one dies and you are expected to resume work (and presumably return to your old self) in three quick days. Hmm, does sound like discrimination to you? Moreover, no business is required to provide training or guidance on how to support a fellow employee in grief. Here we are, among the 10 richest countries in the world and we treat bereaved folks like this. Griefism. In 2022 Seattle banned the placement of a Grief Lending Library (a wooden box with free books on grief) from most locations. Here is a quote from an 8/5/22 Seattle Times article by Pamela Belyea:

After we received rejections from churches, libraries, businesses and local nonprofits, we proposed siting our book boxes in front of five Seattle community centers. To our dismay, the progressive, compassionate civic leaders at Seattle Parks, Department of Transportation and City Hall responded in concert, ‘We don’t think it’s appropriate for them to be installed in parks or in front of community centers.’

Let’s look next at the institution: Religion. This, of course, is a sensitive topic. For some religions, the expected response to a death is, “He’s in a better place.” And “Let us celebrate.” And “You will have 3 days (or 30 days or 100 days) of mourning and that’s it.” I feel sorry for those guilty folks who continue to grieve after their allocated period of mourning. Years ago, I attended the funeral of the wife of my friend, Ralph. The first thing the minister said as he stood up at the podium was, “We are here to celebrate the passing of our dear friend.” Afterwards, Ralph came up to me saying, “When the minister said we are here to celebrate, I wanted to jump up and say, “That’s not why I’m here.” We always hear, “Everyone grieves differently. However, quite often one’s religion does not abide by that fact. More Griefism.

Economy is another institution that has built-in prejudice. Let’s focus for a moment on one aspect of our economy: the media, in particular, the movies. When the loved one of the protagonist dies, how long does the grief last? Oh, we may see some crying and sadness, but quickly the grief is put aside and the character moves on with life; and the beloved deceased person is rarely, if ever, mentioned again. Moreover, we never see actual intense grief for more than 20 or 30 seconds. One exception comes to mind: the movie Steel Magnolias. In this movie a mother played by Sally Field is standing next to the casket of her recently deceased 25-year-old daughter. Suddenly, she launches into grief-driven tears and fist-clenching anger screaming “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” What is the total length of this powerful display of grief? 78 seconds. That’s it. I challenge you to find in any movie a longer grief scene. In the typical movie the plot has to be unveiled and the characters have little time for (more) grieving. So, what’s the big deal? By the time millions of people who’ve not experienced a significant death see hundreds of movies during their lifetime in which grief is swept aside or ignored, many may begin to get the idea that grief is something to “get over and move on.” Ask any bereaved parent, sibling, or spouse and they’ll tell you that, after a few (choose one): weeks/months/years, well-meaning friends and relatives are concerned that the bereaved person is not back to “normal.”

Here is another media example: words we hear from reporters when they are discussing with a survivor the death of a loved one. What words do we hear from reporters? Words like: closure—“And, now the family has closure.”, recovered or healed—"He’s now recovered (or healed) from this tragedy.”, acceptance—"She’s accepted her fate.” Interestingly, these are words you do not hear from the folks in grief. There are other examples, but you get the idea: again and again the media give the impression that grief is brief and people move on. More Griefism.

The institution of Education has its own problems. One of 20 young people will have experienced the death of a parent by age 18. By that time most kids will have had one or more grandparents die. Yet, few if any elementary, middle school or high schoolers will ever get an education on coping with grief. Suicide rates of young people continue to rise, yet this tragedy is often met with school silence. Kids are trained to physically—but not emotionally--deal with school shootings. The excuse? Kids are resilient. They’ll get over it. Griefism. Another example from Education is the euphemisms we use to describe dying, death, dead: Passed on, crossed over, went to heaven—you can quickly come up with 20 or 30 euphemisms. Just another way we avoid death.

Family is the most important of the five institutions. Yet, it, too has its own problems with death. Gone are the days when a child experiences the death of a grandparent or other relative in their home. Eighty-percent of deaths in the U.S. take place in the hospital. Some parents “protect” their children by not taking them to the funeral. A father dies and the young son is informed, “You’re the man of the house now.” A favorite aunt comes down with breast cancer and all are informed except the children. When the death does occur, the uniformed children are left in shock, not having been given the benefit of prior knowledge.

There they are, five institutions in which grief is minimized, discounted, or ignored. No wonder bereaved people report feeling so all alone in their grief. Many report loss of friends. Some have to put up with relatives who want them to “get over it.” Unfortunately, by living in a death-denying society, most all will hear clichés such as “He’s in a better place.” “It’s God’s will.” “Everything happens for a reason.” And “I know just how you feel.”

Today a child will be born into a society that fails to adequately teach, communicate, and prepare him or her for the reality of death. Instead, this child will live in a world in which true grieving is a rarely observed event. As we know, when prejudice is built into society, it is difficult to surgically excise. The first step toward reducing Griefism is identifying that the prejudice exists. The next step is for each of us to take a stand and challenge this type of prejudice whenever we see it. Now that you’ve read this article and are more attuned to the effects of Griefism, the question for you is: Are you going to take a stand? Or will you put down this article and walk away?

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